Charles Swan (essay date 1824)
SOURCE: Swan, Charles. Introduction to “Gesta Romanorum”: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; Invented by the Monks as a Fireside Recreation, and Commonly Applied in Their Discourses from the Pulpit: Whence the Most Celebrated of Our Own Poets and Others, from the Earliest Times Have Extracted Their Plots, translated by Charles Swan, revised by Wynnard Hooper, pp. xxx-xxxiv. London: George Bell and Sons, 1877.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1824, Swan, the first translator of the complete Gesta Romanorum into English, offers a brief history of the work.]
I now hasten to the Gesta Romanorum; and purpose giving a brief outline of its history, with a notice of certain stories which, without reference to their own individual merit, have been raised into higher importance by furnishing the groundwork of many popular dramas. I shall also take occasion to offer a few remarks upon the translation now before the public, elucidatory of certain points which seem to require explanation.
The Gesta Romanorum was one of the most applauded compilations of the Middle Ages. The method of instructing by fables is a practice of remote antiquity; and has always been attended with very considerable benefit. Its great popularity encouraged the monks to adopt this medium, not only for the sake of illustrating their discourses, but of making a more durable impression upon the minds of their illiterate auditors. An abstract argument, or logical deduction (had they been capable of supplying it), would operate but faintly upon intellects rendered even more obtuse by the rude nature of their customary occupations; while, on the other hand, an apposite story would arouse attention, and stimulate that blind and uninquiring devotion, which is so remarkably characteristic of the Middle Ages.
The work under consideration is compiled from old Latin chronicles of Roman, or rather, as Mr. Warton and Mr. Douce think, of German invention. But this idea, with all submission, derives little corroborative evidence from fact. There is one story, and I believe, but one, which gives any countenance to it. That a few are extracted from German authors (who may not, after all, be the inventors) is no more proof that the compiler was a German, than that, because some stories are found in the Roman annals, the whole book was the production of a Latin writer.
Oriental, legendary, and classical fables, heightened by circumstances of a strong romantic cast, form the basis of this singular composition. But the authorities cited for classical allusions are usually of the lower order. Valerius, Maximus, Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, Pliny, Seneca, Boethius, and occasionally Ovid, are introduced; but they do not always contain the relation which they are intended to substantiate; and it is invariably much disguised and altered. The oriental apologues are sometimes from the romance of Baarlam and Josaphat, and in several instances from a Latin work entitled, De Clericali Disciplina, attributed to Petrus Alphonsus, a converted Jew, godson to Alphonsus I. of Arragon, after whom he was named. There is an analysis of it by Mr. Douce inserted in Mr. Ellis's Specimens of Early English Romances. According to the former of these gentlemen, two productions bearing the title of Gesta Romanorum, and totally distinct from each other, exist. I confess I see no good reason for the assertion. I take the later work to be the same as its predecessor, with a few additions, not so considerable by any means as Mr. Douce imagines.1 This I shall show, by and by. Of the present performance, though it purports to relate the Gests of the Romans, there is little that corresponds with the title. On the contrary, it comprehends “a multitude of narratives, either not historical, or in another respect, such as are totally unconnected with the Roman people, or perhaps the most preposterous misrepresentations of their history. To cover this deviation from the promised plan, which, by introducing a more ample variety of matter, has contributed to increase the reader's entertainment, our collector has taken care to preface almost every story with the name or reign of a Roman emperor; who, at the same time, is often a monarch that never existed, and who seldom, whether real or supposititious, has any concern with the circumstances of the narrative.”2
The influence which this work has had on English poetry is not the least surprising fact connected with it. Not only the earlier writers of our country—Gower, Chaucer, Lydgate, Occleve, &c.—have...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)